Our last day at the cabin was Sunday. Before packing up and driving back to Salt Lake, we had a family sacrament service (my brother-in-law had received permission from his bishop). We gathered in the living room where we sang a hymn and said a prayer. Some of the men broke bread, blessed it in the name of Jesus and passed it around for each person to eat. Next they blessed water and passed that around. After this essential part of the meeting, my husband gave a short talk and the children sang “I am a Child of God” before we closed with another prayer.
All of my siblings and their families are active members of the Church, and all of my husband’s family is active in the Church too. The majority of our aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents are also active church members, and so family reunions usually include some religion. If a reunion falls on a Sunday, we have a little church meeting of our own, but even when there’s no Sunday, we usually have a gathering with religious overtones, such as a Christmas program or a tribute to a grandparent who’s having a birthday.
It’s hard for me to articulate the feelings I have when practicing religion with family. As a wannabe-anthropologist, I love the overt display of culture, connection and shared values. I also feel a strong connection to our ancestors who were bold enough to adopt an obscure, unpopular religion, and then brave enough to travel to a barren wilderness to practice it. The sacrifices they made were huge, and their faith, charity and work ethic were heroic.
In our church we talk about these pioneers quite a bit. We even have a holiday in their honor (July 24th is Pioneer Day, a state holiday in Utah and a Mormon holiday around the world). But when we study our pioneers in church, while my admiration for them increases, they still feel like an abstraction to me, a school day lesson. On the other hand, when I’m sitting on a river bank in a desert canyon with a hundred relatives, listening to my grandfather share how he gained his faith from his mother, my ancestors are amazingly knowable. I discover that I am more than just a recipient of what they built; I am, very literally, an extension of who they were. I look into the freckled face of a cousin and see not a middle-class American trying to raise a family, but a Danish farmer trying to settle a wilderness. I look at my father’s unwavering commitment to his beliefs and I see an Italian Waldensian living high in the Alps to escape the bloody persecution of his neighbors. And when I wonder how those Danish farmers or Italian heretics felt about the Utah landscape or The Book of Mormon or preparing their children for the future, I realize that my own thoughts and feelings about these things are but echoes of theirs.
At family reunions I discover my ancestors: they are my dirty blonde hair, my round face, my blue eyes, my sturdy body; they are my citizenship, my patriotism, my English language, my Mormon dialect; they are my attitudes, my ideas, my convictions; they are my moral courage and my work ethic; they are my faith. The world has changed incredibly since my ancestors emigrated in the mid-1800s to the Rocky Mountains, but the church and culture they established have stayed remarkably the same. All things considered, six generations, 150 years, is barely a stitch in time, and I feel this fact profoundly when we’re singing hymns they sang and using a priesthood they passed down to us, father to son.
Our strange little Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, now has more members outside of the United States than inside. Our strange little Church is becoming known as a world-wide religion and a powerful force for good. This is only possible because the faith of those first pioneers survived in their children and then their grandchildren and on and on. In our Church’s history, each rising generation has accepted the torch of faith and continued to build on what their forefathers established, spreading the gospel to more and more families. While religion and faith in God seem to be losing ground in many parts of the world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is thriving. Modernization has not diluted the potency of our religion. Our meetinghouses are full of beautiful youth and prosperous young families because we find in our Church an identity, a purpose and moral footing. When I look at my peers outside the church, it’s plain that those without religion often lack identitiy, purpose and a strong moral compass.
My church and my family are intertwined, which I consider a tremendous blessing. I am raising my children within a framework of love, respect and defined values that connect them to their forebearers and to me. I love the faith of my fathers and feel so blessed that I can offer that faith to my children.
A few months ago, my dad sent me a link to a Daily Beast article about Utah’s relative success through our nation’s Great Recession. The author describes Utah’s prosperity and attributes it to the Mormon heritage. As an insider who knows this to be true, it’s nice to be appreciated by an outsider.